Mesa Verde - Balcony House

11 Best Stops On A Road Trip From Phoenix To Durango

The best way to experience a drastic change in scenery in the US Southwest on a long weekend is a road trip from Phoenix to Durango. Though it makes a perfect trip any time of the year, it is the best for summer to get away from the unbearable heat of Phoenix.

Even though “it’s a dry heat” as we love to point out, we try to leave the city as often as possible. The great thing about Phoenix is that it is easy to take a road trip from it to higher elevations, cooler areas.

We have options for day trips to cool down in the high country of Arizona, or drive all the way to the highest spots of Colorado to Ouray during week-long break. The middle ground, the best option for a long weekend, or any three-to-four-days, is a road trip to Durango.

And this trip is perfect any time, not only in the summer. In the autumn, it is an excellent road trip to see gorgeous fall leaves, while in the winter offers skiing opportunities. During spring, it offers an opportunity to enjoy the fresh green of forested areas, and wildflowers in the meadows.

The full distance between Phoenix and Durango is 454 miles via I-17 North. This is the more scenic road, at least in the summer. Along this route, you can find plenty of places to stop and things to do along the way, so the trip will not seem long at all.

The following are several of my favorite stops along the way from Phoenix to Durango.

Phoenix

in the Phoenix Art Museum
Inside the Phoenix Art Museum. Museums are the few places to enjoy in Phoenix in the summer.

Phoenix offers plenty of activities all year long, even in the summer, at least for a few days. You have several museums to enjoy indoors, during the heat of the summer, or outdoor trails to hike in the winter. If you just flew in, and have a few hours, or part of a day to spend before getting on the road, you’ll find plenty of things to do near the airport, without driving too much in town.

But if you are here in the summer, you will want to get on the road leading out of town as soon as possible. The following are some of my favorite stops along the way to Durango, Colorado.

Distance and directions to next stop:

Driving on I-17 N, first stop is Montezuma Castle, 96 miles from Phoenix. You’ll find it three miles off exit 289 on Montezuma Castle Road.

1. Montezuma Castle National Monument

Montezuma Castle - photo by Győző Egyed

Showcasing one of the oldest and prettiest cliff dwelling in the US Southwest, Montezuma Castle, dates from around 1150.

Although the site has nothing to do with Montezuma and the Aztecs, looking at the five-story structure you can imagine why people who first saw it would’ve thought it a castle. However, the cliff dwelling, built long before the Aztec king was even born, housed a village.

A structure prevalent in the Four Corners area, the cliff dwelling tells the story of the Sinagua, ancestors of some of the modern Pueblo nations.

And the villagers of Montezuma Castle weren’t really without water, either, as the name suggests (sin = without; agua = water in Spanish). Proof of their ingenuity, the canal they built still brings water to the site, at least in the winter months. Visiting it in the summer, it looks like a dry riverbed, but if you return in the winter, you might see water flowing through it.

Why Stop Here and how long should you spend here:

Sightseeing, learning about the ancient civilizations of Arizona and the US Southwest are the main reasons to stop here. A paved path leads through the site, in the shadow of giant Arizona sycamore trees. Though you can’t enter the cliff dwellings, it is clearly visible from the trail and from the viewpoint.

You can visit Montezuma Castle in an hour.

Distance and directions to next stop:

Head back to I-17 and drive north for 1 1/2 miles to the next exit (Exit 293). Total distance between Montezuma Castle and Montezuma Well is 11 miles.

2. Montezuma Well

Cliff dwellings on the sides of Montezuma Well
Cliff dwellings on the sides of Montezuma Well

A subunit of Montezuma Castle National Monument, the natural lake known as Montezuma Well features the only sinkhole in Arizona, and several ancient ruins on the side and around the well.

A desert oasis, the natural lake formed by a collapsed limestone cave, is home to a plethora of bird species, ducks, and turtles. Besides wildlife watching, it is a perfect place to cool down, especially along the Swallet Ruins Trail. The small cliff dwellings don’t really compare to Montezuma Castle, but they are still interesting, though the main reason you’d stop here is the cool water and shade.

The swallet is an underground stream that feeds the well. The trail follows the creek until it enters the limestone cave.

Why stop here and how long should you spend here:

Sightseeing, nature watching, enjoying a walk along a cool creek, in the shade of a giant Arizona sycamore tree, learning about smaller cliff dwellings and pit houses built by the Sinagua, are several of reasons this is a good place to stop. You can spend about an hour here.

Directions & distance to next stop:

To reach the next destination, you don’t need to get back on I-17. Instead, drive on Montezuma Well Road for 3 miles, then turn right onto Forest Service Road 618. Once you’re close, you’ll see the signs for the site. Distance: 5.7 miles.

3. V Bar V Heritage Site

V-Bar-V Heritage site. Petroglyphs
Petroglyphs at the V-Bar-V Heritage Site.

The largest and best preserved known petroglyph site in the Verde Valley of Arizona, the V-Bar-V Heritage Site is worth a stop, especially if you are interested in rock art or the prehistoric Southwest.

Over 1,000 petroglyphs on 13 different panels preserve the stories of the same Southern Sinagua people who built Montezuma Castle and the structures around Montezuma Well, and lived here between 1150 and 1400 AD.

When visiting, you’ll probably meet a representative of either the Verde Valley Archaeological Society or Friends of the Forest, who offer insights into the interpretation and symbolism of the petroglyphs.

The name of the site has nothing to do with the petroglyphs, though. V-Bar-V was the brand used on the original ranch at that location, bought by the Coconino National Forest in 1994.

The petroglyph site is a short walk from the Visitor Center, on a wide path near Beaver Creek. Though it gets sunny, especially in the summer, there is some vegetation along the creek, and it’s a short walk, definitely worth it.

Why stop here and how long should you spend here:

Sightseeing, adding another layer of understanding about the Southern Sinagua people who built cliff dwellings and pit houses in the area, and wrote some of their stories on the surface of the rock. You can see the site in about half hour, or spend about an hour here.

Distance and directions to next stop

Follow Forest Service Road 618 to AZ-179 North to Sedona; overall distance: 17 miles. If you skipped, the previous site(s), and driving from I-17, take the AZ-179 exit and follow it to town.

4. Sedona

Bell Rock - Sedona
Bell Rock – View from the trail

Famous as the prettiest small town in the US, Sedona is nestled among hundreds of red rock formations, and home to a great number of art-filled boutiques.

You’ll find hundreds of trails here, for all levels of fitness, from leisurely walks on red dirt, to strenuous climbs, or hikes among juniper forests. You can hike to famous landmarks, like Bell Rock or Devil’s Bridge.

Spend some time in downtown Sedona, visiting art galleries and souvenir shops, and stop for lunch in a restaurant in town. For a unique experience, stop at Tlaquepaque Arts and Crafts Village. And even if you are not religious at all, drive up to the Chapel of the Holy Cross, the church built into the rock, as part of it.

Before leaving, drive up to the Sedona Airport Scenic Lookout for the best views of the town and its surroundings.

Why stop here and how long should you spend here:

Sightseeing, hikes in the red-rock country, art galleries, lunch are some of the things to do here during your stop. In fact, there is enough to do here to warrant an overnight stay. Depending on how much hiking and sightseeing you want to do, you can visit Sedona in a few hours, or spend a day or two here.

Distance and directions to next destination:

Follow AZ-89A scenic road north out of town. Next destination includes stops along the actual 15 mile-drive from Sedona to Oak Creek Vista.

5. Oak Creek Canyon

Oak Creek Vista view Credit: U.S. Forest Service Coconino National Forest.
View from Oak Creek Vista

Next, you’ll drive through Oak Creek Canyon, one of the most scenic drives in Arizona. Stop along the way at the scenic Midgley Bridge, then drive into the canyon, along shaded Oak Creek. You’ll find several picnicking and camping areas, Grasshopper Point being one of them.

If you have time, and it isn’t too busy, stop at the Slide Rock State Park, one of the most popular summer-time destinations in the state. Named “one of America’s top ten swimming holes”, the park features an 80-feet long and between 2.5 and 4-feet wide natural water slide below an apple orchard, surrounded by Sedona’s red rocks. Slide Rock includes half a mile of Oak Creek open for swimming, besides the slide.

As you climb out of the canyon, the road twists and turns, offering gorgeous views of the canyon from every direction. Stop at the top, at Oak Canyon Vista scenic point for the best views, and a short walk in the pines.

Why stop here and how long should you spend here:

Scenic views and wooded areas are the main reason we stop here; you can also find picnicking and camping opportunities inside Oak Creek Canyon. But the main attraction here is Slide Rock State Park. Depending on how often you stop, and for how long, you can spend half hour to a whole day along this route.

Distance and directions to next destination:

Follow AZ-89A north until it meets up with I-17; get back on -17 to Flagstaff. Total distance: 14 miles.

6. Flagstaff

View from the Aspen Loop Trail

Surrounded by the largest ponderosa pine forest on the continent, at an elevation of 7,000 feet and peaks of the mountain reaching 13,000 feet, Flagstaff is as different from Phoenix as night and day. No wonder it is the most popular destination for Phoenix residents, pretty much in every season. In the summers, it is our favorite place to cool down, in fall the best place to view autumn leaves, winter offers skiing opportunities, and spring fresh air, forest trails, and wildfire meadows.

At 12,633 feet, Humphrey’s Peak is the highest point in Arizona, and many adventurous hikers from the state summit it regularly. Those of us less inclined to do the strenuous hike at that high elevation can find plenty of other trails, easier on our knees and lungs, though my favorites are still at the higher elevation of Snowbowl. Speaking of Snowbowl, you can take the ski-lift any time of the year, for the gorgeous views, besides the skiing in winter.

Hiking and the outdoors might be the main attraction of Flagstaff, but the city has more to offer. In fact, it is the one place you should spend a day before heading farther towards Colorado. Walk through the historic Downtown, starting at the train depot, where the Visitor Center is. If you have time, I recommend visiting theMuseum of Northern Arizona, and at nightfall, go up to Mars Hill and visit theLowell Observatory, the place Pluto was discovered.

Though it’s far from being mid-way, Flagstaff is still the best place to overnight on a road trip between Phoenix and Durango, if you plan on making the trip in two days. Or, spend a few days here, after overnighting in Sedona, if you have a longer time-frame for the trip.

Why stop here and how long should you spend here:

Hiking, dining, sightseeing, museums, observatory, skiing in the winter, are only a few of the reasons you need to spend time in Flagstaff. You have so many things to do here, you can spend several days exploring Flagstaff and its surroundings. It is the best spot to stay overnight, if you are doing this trip in two days.

Distance and directions to next destination:

Take I-40 E to Walnut Canyon Road (Exit 204). Distance: 11 miles.

7. Walnut Canyon National Monument

Walnut Canyon cliff dwelling
Walnut Canyon cliff dwelling

Just on the outskirts of Flagstaff, you’ll findWalnut Canyon National Monument, a gorgeous display of geological cliff formations and home to a series of cliff dwellings. Carved by Walnut Creek during a period of about 60 million years, the canyon offers an amazing combination of stunning scenery and varied animal and plant life.

Walnut Canyon also offered the perfect place for ancient people to build their cliff dwellings into the alcoves of the steep canyon walls. The ancient Sinagua may have moved on, but their intriguing homes still stand on the side of the canyon, and the park allows visitors to walk near and through several of them.

Visiting these cliff dwellings takes a bit of an effort though, as the trail descends 185 feet into the canyon through a series of 240 stairs. The descent is not the main problem though, but for many, the ascent might be. The sudden elevation change also might cause elevation sickness headaches, so I like to stop often, to give myself time to acclimate to the change.

Once on level terrain, the Island Trail offers a close-up look of 25 cliff dwellings built around the 1100s by the northern cousins of the same Sinagua who also built Montezuma Castle.

Besides the Island Trail and the cliff dwellings, a level, mostly paved trail leads from the Visitor Center along the canyon rim, offering great views and a pleasant walk in the shadow of pinion pines. To learn more about this environment and the Sinagua who built the cliff dwellings, stop at the museum inside the Visitor Center.

Why stop here; how long should you spend here:

Cliff dwellings, hiking, sightseeing are the major reasons to stop here. You can visit the park, including the hike to the cliff dwellings in about one to two hours.

Distance and directions to next destination:

Take Historic Route 66 to AZ-89 N and drive to the Sunset Crater Wupatki Scenic Loop. Total distance: 20 miles to Sunset Crater.

If you are traveling while it’s closed, you need to skip it, in that case keep driving on AZ-89N to the junction with US-160; turn right unto it and keep driving to Navajo National Monument. Total distance: 142 miles.

At this moment, AZ-89 is closed because of another fire – the Pipeline Fire. It should open in a few days, but in case this happens when you are traveling (they seem to have too many fires in that area, though soon there will be nothing left to burn); take an alternate route to Durango via I-40.

Alternate Route via I-40:

Drive east on I-40 to Holbrook, where you can visit Petrified Forest National Park. Distance to Petrified Forest NP is 107 miles.

From Petrified Forest NP continue on I-40 to Gallup, New Mexico (73 miles).

Next, follow US-491, turn onto N5, then onto NM-371, then NM-516 to Aztec, and visit Aztec Ruins National Monument. (126 miles)

From Aztec, follow NM-550 to Durango (36 miles)

8. Sunset Crater

Sunset Crater: Along the Sunset Crater and Wupatki Scenic Road
View of Sunset Crater from the trail

Sunset Crater National Monument, one of the most spectacular National Park units in Arizona protects the youngest and most colorful cinder cone in the San Francisco volcanic field. The 1,000-foot high Sunset Crater is one of about 600 volcanoes in the region, and the only one protected as a national monument.

9. Wupatki National Monument

The Tall House in Wupatki. photo (c) Jeff Fromm

The ancient villages of Wupatki are the work of the Ancient Puebloans who built them around 1100, about a century after the neighboring Sunset Crater erupted. Wupatki National Monument includes several of these pueblos. The largest one, Wupatki is at the end of a 1/2-mile trail from the Visitor Center, and it comprises a large, 100-room four-story structure, a kiva, and a ball court.

Other villages in the National Monument include Wukoki Pueblo, Citadel and Nalahiku Pueblos, and Box Canyon and Lomaki.

Why Stop Here:

Visiting ancient ruins and the gorgeous views of the surroundings, including the Painted Desert, are the reason to stop here.

Distance and directions to the next stop

Drive back to AZ-89 N, then take US-160 E towards Tuba City for 62 miles, then turn left unto AZ-564 N towards Navajo National Monument. Total distance: 143 miles.

10. Navajo National Monument

View of the ruins of Betatakin
View of Betatakin from the Rim trail

Next, you’ll drive through the colorful Painted Desert on the Navajo Nation. You feel like you are in the middle of nowhere, but now and then you’ll see a tiny Diné settlement, with a few homes surrounded by hogans.

But long before the Diné came to live in the area, this landscape was home to the Ancestral Pueblo people, ancestors of the modern Pueblo tribes, the Hopi and Zuni among them. You’ll find the ruins of this ancient society, showcasing several of their cliff dwellings at Navajo National Monument.

Though you can only visit the cliff dwellings by joining a ranger-led tour (not available at this time, in June of 2022), you can still see them from a trail off the Visitor Center. For the perfect view of Betatakin, the largest of the cliff dwellings, take the Sandal Trail. From the viewpoint at the end of this trail, you’ll have a great view of the structures in the huge alcove where the Ancestral Puebloans live between 1250 to 1300.

Besides Betatakin, the park protects two other cliff dwellings, Keet Seel, and Inscription House.

Why Stop Here?

To see ancient cliff dwellings and take a walk along the rim of a canyon.

Distance and directions to the next stop

Drive back to US-160 E and follow it to Cortez and Mesa Verde National Park. Total distance: 155 miles.

11. Mesa Verde National Park

Mesa Verde National Park
Mesa Verde National Park

Home to the most spectacular and most famous cliff dwellings and in the Four Corner area and in the world, Mesa Verde National Park will be the highlight of this road trip. The largest of them, Cliff Palace, is an architectural masterpiece. Home to over 100 people between 1190 and 1280 AD, it features 115 rooms and 28 kivas.

The other cliff dwellings may be smaller, but they are just as spectacular. They include Long House, Spruce Tree House, Balcony House, and Step House.

And the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verdeare only a part of a huge concentration of ancient pueblo dwellings in the park, where archaeologists recorded over 4,000 sites. Besides the cliff dwellings, they include ancient villages built on the mesa top. These are older, dating from around 775 AD and include pit houses, ceremonial kivas, and towers.

Besides being a National Park, the first one established to protect and archaeological park, Mesa Verde is is also aUNESCO Heritage Site, designated for its outstanding universal value.

While you can visit the mesa-top sites and Step House on your own, you need to join a ticketed tour for all other cliff dwellings.

As of May 2022, you need to buy tickets ahead of time. You can do this either online onrecreation.govor by calling 877-444-6777. You can buy them 14 days in advance, and since the demand is high, I recommend to try to get them early.

Why Stop Here?

Visiting the spectacular cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde, famous all over the world will make this will be the most memorable stop on this road trip

Distance and directions to the next stop:

Drive back to US-160 E and follow it for the next 35 miles to Durango.

Durango

Durango: the Animas River

Surrounded by the rugged San Juan Mountains and its gorgeous forests, Durango offers the perfect summer vacation spot. Besides the spectacular views of the mountains and forests in every direction, the town also has a river running through it for about ten miles.

The Animas River Trail offers the perfect way to explore the city without even getting in a car. This trail is my favorite thing about Durango, crossing the river on picturesque foot-bridges, passing through city parks, and featuring interpretive signs.

You can get anywhere in town along the Animas River Trail. You can either walk it, or bike it, or a combination of both. It offers a lovely way to enjoy the mountain town, especially in the summer, when the weather is perfect here.

Besides its outdoorsy vibe, Durango also has a Wild West feel, at least in the Historic Downtown, where you’ll find 1880s era buildings. And, of course, you’ll find plenty of dining choices, from burger joints to Thai restaurants, and everything in between.

You also have some historic hotels to choose from in the Downtown area, within walking distance from everything the city has to offer.

Durango Is A Gateway Town

Durango is the perfect gateway town to the rugged San Juan Mountains and several ancient archaeological sites. We often use it as a base for our Four Corners explorations, to Silverton and Ouray, Mesa Verde, Crow Canyon, and Hovenweep.

FAQ

  1. What is the distance between Phoenix and Durango?

    The total distance between Phoenix and Durango, via I-17 is 474 miles.

  2. What are the best places to spend a night along this route?

    Several of the places along this route merit an overnight stay (or more), and offer plenty of lodging and dining opportunities. Sedona offers plenty to do for at least one or even two nights. Flagstaff is another spot where you can spend at least a night or even two. Mesa Verde or its gateway town, Cortez, offers plenty of amenities and lodging opportunities, and staying here overnight ensures that you can fully explore the famous cliff dwellings. However, you can do this trip in two days, if it’s part of a longer road trip; in that case the best place for overnight is Flagstaff.

Phoenix to Durango road trip pin
Scroll to Top